The conservative media's meltdown over a Nebraska school district's effort to train teachers about gender diversity demonstrates how conservative misinformation threatens even basic efforts to protect transgender and gender non-conforming students.
In late September, administrators from the Lincoln Public Schools (LPS) district in Nebraska began providing teachers with informational materials aimed at better equipping them to accommodate and protect transgender and gender non-conforming students. The materials included handouts from the group Gender Spectrum, which works to help develop "a gender sensitive and inclusive environment for all children and teens."
One of those handouts, "12 easy steps on the way to gender inclusiveness," listed recommendations to help teachers make their classrooms more gender-inclusive, including asking teachers to stop gender-based bullying and avoid the use of gender-specific terms like "ladies and gentlemen." Instead, Gender Spectrum recommended teachers use terms like "readers," "campers," or classroom nicknames like "purple penguins."
The school district's distribution of Gender Spectrum's materials sparked controversy when the conservative group Nebraska Watchdog published a report on the handout on October 2. The report was picked up by National Review Online and The Daily Caller before eventually making the jump to Fox News. The network ran multiple segments falsely accusing LPS of "banning" terms like "boys and girls" as part of a "political agenda."
In an interview with Equality Matters, Gender Spectrum's Director of Education Joel Baum criticized the "disingenuous" reporting on his organization's training materials. "They're sharing information about work that's occurring in a school and not being accurate about ... the overall purpose of the work," he said. "[B]y taking various things out of context - like "purple penguins" - they completely trivialize something that's really, really important and misrepresent our work."
Fox's misleading coverage of Gender Spectrum's handouts eventually prompted LPS Superintendent Steve Joel to call a press conference to dispel the network's misinformation. Joel criticized conservative media outlets for peddling falsehoods about the educational materials, calling it "regrettable" and "truly unfortunate" that the school was forced to waste time and resources responding to calls and questions about the handouts.
A Colorado reporter called out Republican Senate candidate Cory Gardner's efforts to conceal the fact that the federal personhood bill he co-sponsored would end abortion, a refreshing contrast to other media figures' refusal to hold Gardner accountable for his stance.
In the October 15 debate between Gardner and Democratic incumbent Sen. Mark Udall, Kyle Clark, a reporter for NBC-affiliate KUSA, pressed Gardner on his continued denial that the Life At Conception Act is a federal personhood bill that would effectively end abortion procedures, by granting human eggs at fertilization the rights of a living person. Clark emphasized the fact that Gardner is a co-sponsor of the bill, which independent fact checkers widely agree would end abortion, and asked what the candidate's denial says about his judgment and willingness to hide the truth:
CLARK: You continue to deny that the federal Life At Conception Act, which you sponsor, is a personhood bill to end abortion -- and we are not going to debate that here tonight because that's a fact. Your co-sponsors say so; your opponents say so; and independent fact-checkers say so. So let's instead talk about what this entire episode may say about your judgment more broadly. It would seem that a charitable interpretation would be that you have a difficult time admitting when you're wrong, and a less charitable interpretation is that you're not telling us the truth. Which is it?
Gardner's support for personhood legislation has previously been glossed over by many in the media. The Denver Post's editorial board endorsed the candidate by claiming he posed "no threat to abortion rights," a declaration that completely ignores Gardner's support of the federal personhood legislation that would severely handicap women's access to health care and legal abortion.
Syndicated Washington Post columnist George Will echoed the Denver Post's endorsement, claiming that the issue of reproductive rights had already been settled and would not be affected by Gardner's election.
Thankfully, as Clark made clear in his questioning of Gardner, not all media figures are willing to give Gardner a pass on his incomprehensible personhood stance.
Fox News is claiming that Democratic campaigns and supporters are vastly outspending their Republican counterparts during this election cycle, a suggestion that appears to focus on super PACs and ignores the influence of "dark money" spending that favors the GOP.
On the October 10 edition of America's Newsroom, host Bill Hemmer stated that Democrats have "got a lot of money ... and they're spending it, in some states, 4-to-1 over Republican candidates." National Review Online editor-at-large and Fox News contributor Jonah Goldberg repeated a similar claim on the October 13 edition of Happening Now, downplaying secretive right-wing donors like the Koch brothers and arguing that "the reality is, is that most of the money is actually on the Democratic side" in contentious Senate races like the one in Kentucky:
HEATHER CHILDERS (guest host): So, a lot of this also is coming down to money. And we are talking about big amounts of money that are being spent from both sides in these particular states, so how is that going to influence things?
GOLDBERG: Sure, well, it depends on state by state. You know, in some of these places, you just don't have enough physical airtime in the space-time continuum to buy more ads. I mean, people are throwing in -- you know, the Democrats are just announcing [unintelligible] a million dollars into South Dakota. A million dollars probably would buy, you know, who knows how much airtime in South Dakota at this point. And so you're seeing things saturated all over the place. One of the things that has helped Democrats enormously is, they have actually raised vastly more money than Republicans have at a lot of these different levels. They're spending a lot more money. In North Carolina, they're outspending Republicans, I think, 2-to-1, and yet they claim that it's all the evil Koch brothers and their sort of other James Bond-like villains who are throwing all the money into Republicans. When the reality is, is that most of the money is actually on the Democratic side, but a lot of the mainstream media covers it as if, "Oh, it must be the Republicans who are taking advantage of all of this outside money." [emphasis added]
On October 15, Fox News correspondent Jim Angle continued the network's inapt comparison of the Koch brothers to high-dollar Democratic donors. Angle didn't mention that unlike the progressive billionaires and unions he highlighted, conservative activists like the Kochs are unwilling to publicly stand behind the right-wing policies their billions of dollars fund.
Fox News' narrative is misrepresenting the full and current story on campaign spending, which actually shows that a deluge of undisclosed outside money is supporting Republicans and outpacing similar expenditures for Democrats -- especially in the Kentucky contest.
The 4-to-1 statistic that Hemmer used may be a reference to a widely cited report from The Wall Street Journal that found super PACs aligned with Democrats had raised four times more than their Republican counterparts. By focusing on super PAC figures, Fox News is ignoring massive spending from outside right-wing groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Fox News contributor Karl Rove's Crossroads GPS, and the Koch brothers' network of secretive and increasingly political groups. These organizations don't reveal their donors, and sometimes -- depending on the type of ad they are running -- they don't even reveal their expenditures. Groups of that sort have spent more "dark money" -- funds from undisclosed donors -- than Democratic-leaning groups have.
National Review editor Rich Lowry equated Kentucky senate candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes' refusal to disclose which presidential candidate she voted for in 2012 with former Republican Rep. Todd Akin's (MO) stunning claim that it is "really rare" for a woman to become pregnant as a result of "a legitimate rape." Lowry suggested the two positions were politically equivalent "gaffes," whitewashing the fact that Akin's statement was not only absurdly disconnected from scientific reality -- it also happened to reflect actual policy priorities of the Republican Party.
During an October 10 interview with the editorial board of The Louisville Courier-Journal, Grimes said she "respect[ed] the sanctity of the ballot box" when asked if she voted for President Obama in past elections. During an October 13 candidate debate, Grimes reiterated her stance on voter privacy:
GRIMES: This is a matter of principle. Our constitution grants, here in Kentucky, the constitutional right to privacy at the ballot box, for a secret ballot. You have that right, Senator McConnell has that right, every Kentuckian has that right.
GRIMES: I am not going to compromise a constitutional right provided here in Kentucky in order to curry favor on one or other side or for members of the media.
In an October 15 column published by Politico Magazine, Lowry exclaimed that "Alison Lundergan Grimes is the Todd Akin of 2014," and argued that Grimes' stated position defending the secret ballot was "a defining political gaffe" for this election. He likened her comments to then-Rep. Todd Akin's infamous statements about rape and pregnancy, in which Akin stated that pregnancies resulting from rape are rare because, "if it's a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down." Lowry argued that the two candidates represented similar levels of political ineptitude, writing that each was "telegenic, mockable and universally condemned."
Grimes' decision to stand on principle with regard to voter privacy has been labeled a "gaffe" by some, but, as MSNBC's Steve Benen pointed out, it is "an issue the media has deemed extremely important, but which actually affects no one."
By comparison, Akin's alarming comments on rape and pregnancy were reflected to varying degrees in actual policy decisions favored by Republican elected officials and candidates. Akin would later attempt to clarify his remarks amid a "firestorm" of controversy, but maintained his opposition to legal abortion access for women -- a constitutional right codified by the Supreme Court in its 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. In 2012, many prominent Republican candidates and conservative media figures supported banning safe and legal abortion, making the issue a central part of campaign rhetoric.
In October 2012, Indiana Republican senate candidate Richard Mourdock voiced his opposition to abortion "even when life begins in that terrible situation of rape," stating that "it is something that God intended to happen." Around the same time, Republican Rep. Joe Walsh of Illinois supported a ban on all abortion, including cases that would threaten the life of the mother. Walsh falsley claimed that "modern technology and science" had solved the problem of potentially life-threatening pregnancies. During a 2007 Republican presidential debate, Mitt Romney said "we don't want to have abortion in this country at all, period." He went on to state that it would be "terrific" if Congress passed a bill outlawing abortion, which he would be "delighted" to sign. Romney dodged abortion questions throughout his 2012 campaign, but promised to eliminate federal funding for women's health organizations like Planned Parenthood and vowed to be "a pro-life president."
Outlawing access to abortion remains a lightning rod for conservative media, with some right-wing outlets going so far as to tie debates about legal abortion to the crimes of convicted murderer Kermit Gosnell. Right-wing media figures like Karl Rove have pushed the myth that some forms of contraception are actually forms of abortion, while others such as Bill O'Reilly advanced extremist views on fetal "personhood" that would criminalize most abortions.
There is no appropriate comparison between Akin's extreme rhetoric and false scientific claims, and Grimes' personal defense of privacy at the ballot box.
Conservative media outlets, led by Fox News, are attacking the city of Houston for subpoenaing a number of local pastors who were part of the right-wing opposition to the city's LGBT non-discrimination ordinance that is suing the city now that the anti-discrimination law is in effect. But their claims that religious liberty should keep the pastors' public addresses secret ignores the fact that subpoenas of parties relevant to a lawsuit are a typical part of the legal discovery process.
Conservative media reacted with outrage to reports that the city of Houston had subpoenaed five local pastors requesting a variety of documents related to their involvement in the legal battle over the city's recently passed Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO), which prohibits discrimination against LGBT residents. The subpoenas included a request for "all speeches, presentations, or sermons related to HERO, the Petition, Mayor Annise Parker, homosexuality, or gender identity."
On October 13, the anti-gay legal group Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) filed a motion to quash the subpoenas, calling them "overbroad" and "unduly burdensome." The motion was reported by Fox News' Todd Starnes, who accused the city of Houston of trying to "silence American pastors" and "deconstruct religious liberty":
I predicted that the government would one day try to silence American pastors. I warned that under the guise of "tolerance and diversity" elected officials would attempt to deconstruct religious liberty.
Sadly, that day arrived sooner than even I expected.
Now is the time for pastors and people of faith to take a stand. We must rise up and reject this despicable strong-arm attack on religious liberty. We cannot allow ministers to be intimidated by government thugs.
Starnes' apoplectic report triggered a wave of conservative misinformation about the subpoenas, with commentators accusing the city government of engaging in unconstitutional bullying and anti-religious harassment. Fox News has covered the story in similarly misleading segments on Fox & Friends, Hannity, and The Kelly File:
But the facts of the case - and normal legal procedure -- don't support right-wing claims of religious persecution:
Fox News' Megyn Kelly dishonestly criticized the Obama administration for allegedly endorsing an anti-terror handbook which advises against referring to terrorists as "jihadis," as it "emboldens them," failing to mention that the Bush administration made a decision to stop using the word "jihadist" to describe terrorists in 2008.
On the October 15 edition of The Kelly File, Kelly hosted National Review Online's Andrew McCarthy to discuss the State Department's Twitter "endorsement" of a handbook that aims to prevent the recruitment of young people by terrorist groups. Kelly quoted the handbook, which was created by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and two Canadian Muslim organizations, as saying jihad is "noble," and said that "our State Department sends this out saying, enjoy." McCarthy stated that this is "the position of the Obama administration. It has been from the beginning of the administration," and criticized CIA chief John Brennan for saying in 2010 that "we can't use the word 'jihad' in connection with terrorism because jihad is a noble concept in Islam."
But this shift in language used to discuss terrorism predates the Obama administration. In May 2008, UPI reported that "U.S. officials are being advised in internal government documents to avoid referring publicly to al-Qaida and other terrorist groups as Islamic or Muslim, and not to use terms like jihad or mujahedin, which "unintentionally legitimize" terrorism." The report continued:
Instead of calling terror groups Muslim or Islamic, the guide suggests using words like totalitarian, terrorist or violent extremist -- "widely understood terms that define our enemies appropriately and simultaneously deny them any level of legitimacy."
By employing the language the extremists use about themselves, the guide warns, officials can inadvertently help legitimize them in the eyes of Muslims.
"Never use the terms 'jihadist' or 'mujahedin' ... to describe the terrorists," instructs the guide. "A mujahed, a holy warrior, is a positive characterization in the context of a just war. In Arabic, jihad means 'striving in the path of God' and is used in many contexts beyond warfare. Calling our enemies Jihadis and their movement a global Jihad unintentionally legitimizes their actions."
"There are some terms which al-Qaida wants us to use because they are helpful to them," Daniel Sutherland, who runs the Department of Homeland Security Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, told United Press International in an interview.
"This is in no way an exercise in political correctness ... we are not watering down what we say."
Fox has attacked the Obama administration for adopting this uncontroversial understanding of jihad in the past. In 2013, Sean Hannity asked if Brennan was "stupid and naïve" for describing jihad as a legitimate tenet of Islam. In 2010, Fox host Brian Kilmeade called a ban on references to jihad "insulting" -- again, without noting the Bush administration's similar policy, which former Bush advisers said laid the groundwork of the Obama administration policy.
On October 15th edition of Shepard Smith Reporting, Shep Smith called out "irresponsible" Ebola fear-mongering in the media, telling viewers: "Do not listen to the hysterical voices on the radio and on the television or read the fear-provoking words onine. The people who say and write hysterical things are being very irresponsible."
Smith's monologue comes after his Fox News colleagues Bill O'Reilly and Laura Ingraham compared CDC Director Dr. Thomas Frieden to a propagandist, and after Fox's Sean Hannity said on his radio show that he would ignore the CDC press conference because he doesn't trust them.
Smith has a long track record of bucking the trend of fear-mongering on Fox News. Here are 7 times Shep Smith was Fox's voice of reason:
Fox News' report on the Supreme Court's recent order temporarily blocking a Texas law that imposed strict requirements on state abortion providers included references to the horrific crimes of convicted murderer Kermit Gosnell, but left out the law's dangerous implications for women's health and access to reproductive care.
On October 14, the Supreme Court stopped implementation of the law, allowing over a dozen Texas abortion clinics to re-open. The law "caused all but eight of the state's abortion clinics to close," according to The New York Times. The challenged restrictions require all abortion clinics in the state to meet the standards of "ambulatory surgical centers" and all doctors "performing abortions to have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital." The court order blocked the former requirement and partially blocked the latter.
The October 15 edition of Fox News' America's Newsroom invoked Gosnell's crimes in its report on the Supreme Court order. Senior judicial analyst Andrew Napolitano admitted that "the practical effect of [the law] was to reduce the number of facilities in the state of Texas that could perform abortions," but went on to characterize the Texas law as intended to protect women's health and prevent crimes like Gosnell's:
Fox News entirely ignored a Vatican report described as "stunning" by religious leaders which suggested that the Catholic Church should welcome and appreciate gay people, despite the network's track record of using religion as an excuse for discriminating against gays and lesbians.
On October 13, an assembly of Roman Catholic bishops at the Vatican released a preliminary document suggesting that the church should be more welcoming and accepting of gay people, stating that gay people have "gifts and qualities to offer the Christian community":
Homosexuals have gifts and qualities to offer to the Christian community. Are we capable of welcoming these people, guaranteeing to them a fraternal space in our communities? Often they wish to encounter a church that offers them a welcoming home. Are our communities capable of providing that, accepting and valuing their sexual orientation, without compromising Catholic doctrine on the family and matrimony?
The document has been described as a "pastoral earthquake" and a "stunning" change in tone for the Catholic Church on the issue of homosexuality. Both CNN and MSNBC devoted significant airtime in the 48 hours following the document's release, discussing its implications for the Catholic Church, the legacy of Pope Francis, and even domestic GOP politics.
But on Fox News, the "pastoral earthquake" went completely unnoticed. According to an Equality Matters analysis, Fox News didn't report on the story once on either October 13 or 14:
Fox News contributor Keith Ablow went on an unhinged racial rant against President Obama, accusing him of failing to protect the country against Ebola because his "affinities, his affiliations are with" Africa and "not us ... He's their leader." Ablow also compared America to a hostage with Stockholm Syndrome, electing a man who dislikes the country and "has names very similar to two of our archenemies, Osama, well, Obama. And Hussein."
Ablow, a member of Fox News' "Medical A-Team," appeared on the October 14 edition of Fox News Radio's The John Gibson Show. He had previously written a column alleging that President Obama is not forcefully confronting Ebola and helping calm fears about the disease because he "may literally believe we should suffer along with less fortunate nations."
Ablow started by explaining that from his perspective "as a psychiatrist," Obama thinks he's a "citizen and a leader of the world" who doesn't belong to one country and "perhaps least of all this country because he has it in for us as disappointing people. People who've been a scourge on the face of the Earth. And so for him to then say we're going to seal the borders and protect Americans when in my view, in his mind, if only unconsciously, he's thinking, 'Really? We're going to prevent folks suffering with illnesses from coming across the border flying into our airports when we have visited a plague of colonialism that has devastated much of the world, on the world? What is the fairness in that?' I believe Barack Obama is thinking."